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Weekly Mishmash I: January 17-23

Chinese Box (1997). IFC showing. A very serious drama documenting a British photojournalist (Jeremy Irons) living in Hong Kong when the city underwent their historic transfer of power to the Chinese in 1997. The tumult of these events is mirrored in Irons’ personal life, in which he deals with his girlfriend (Gong Li), a barkeeper who is also involved with a wealthy Chinese businessman, and a feisty street vendor (Maggie Cheung) who captures his attention. We recorded this for the cast, since Irons is always good, Li never fails to look gorgeous, and the versatile Cheung is watchable in just about anything. Despite them, though, this film is a big bore overloaded with too many obvious metaphors. The characters never really connected with me — Irons is too remote, Li (in her first English speaking role) looks uncomfortable, and Cheung can’t do much with her obnoxious, underwritten character.
Crooner (1932). Fun early Warner Bros. talkie starring handsome David Manners as a big band leader who finds swift stardom after emulating a Rudy Vallee style of soft singing. He gets a swelled head, however, finding that fame is more fleeting than the latest hemline length. Manners is too bland a personality to carry a film, and the songs are beyond unmemorable, but the film moves along nicely thanks to Lloyd Bacon’s crisp direction, and the marvelous Ann Dvorak is on hand as Manners’ girlfriend. I like that the ultimate indignity of Manners’ conceited singer comes when he hits a “cripple” (a WWI vet with one missing leg). How shameful!
The Girl Next Door (1953). Another musical hobbled by forgettable songs, but almost redeemed through its charming cast. This Technicolor Fox opus stars effervescent June Haver as a stage star who retires to a (fabulously decorated) suburban home. All is cozy until Haver finds herself drawn to the slovenly cartoonist (Dan Dailey) living next door, a widower raising a young son (Billy Gray). For some reason, I find myself drawn to June Haver and her generic perkiness, and she’s a good match in the dancing department with the athletic Dailey. I enjoyed the unusual domestic setting here, too, and there are several interestingly staged numbers (such as the one below, with Dailey and Gray doing some intricate moves with a bunch of Lifetime plastic dinnerware). This film even contains two fantasy sequences animated by the UPA studio. These scenes are cool to watch and very ’50s modern looking, but like the rest of the film they don’t quite jell. Overall the film is a diverting curio for ’50s musical fans, über perky and unmemorable.

The rest of the Mishmash continues tomorrow — betcha just can’t wait!

3 Thoughts on “Weekly Mishmash I: January 17-23

  1. Brad In Worcester on January 25, 2010 at 10:45 am said:

    Couldn’t agree with you more about “Chinese” Box”, Matt– Gong Li’s beauty can’t sustain the weirdly reserved Irons (Who is sloooowly morphing into Boris Karloff –just close your eyes and listen)…
    Yet you gloss over what I think is the best performance in the whole thing–Ruben Blades as Jim!
    I’ve enjoyed watching him since getting an 8-track of “Buscando America” in college; not a fake bone in that man’s body…

  2. Cristiane on January 25, 2010 at 6:31 pm said:

    David Manners was absolutely gorgeous, wasn’t he? Terrible actor though. He displays a bit more personality in this than as the blind guy in The Miracle Woman. Barbara Stanwyck really had to act for two in that. Watching Crooner, I finally realized who he reminds me of – Jon Hamm (without the talent).

  3. Christiane – I guess “blandly appealing” was David Manners’ thing (I’ve also read that he was gay, which might explain why he was in so many early 30s flicks). He does look a bit like John Hamm.

    Brad – Ruben Blades was very annoying in Chinese Box, but I’ve seen him do better in other things. I still remember how sexy he was in the made-for-cable movie Crazy from the Heart opposite Christine Lahti.

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